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Mental health problems – an introduction

Explains what mental health problems are, what may cause them, and the many different kinds of help, treatment and support that are available. Also provides guidance on where to find more information, and tips for friends and family.

What treatments are available?

This page gives an overview of the two most common forms of treatment offered though the NHS: talking treatments and psychiatric medication. It also explains some available alternatives, such as arts and creative therapies and complementary and alternative therapies, and explains where you can find out more.

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The NICE guidelines

Any treatment your doctor offers you will ideally follow what the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends for your condition. NICE is the organisation that produces official clinical guidelines on best practice in healthcare. These guidelines are based on published evidence, expert contributions and real life experiences. They are officially for use in England, but may be used in Wales and other parts of the UK too.

However, although healthcare professionals are all encouraged to follow the NICE guidelines, unfortunately access to recommended treatments still varies enormously across the NHS.

For information on accessing treatment, see our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem.

I didn't realise I was experiencing issues for a long time, and then put off seeing someone about it – just knowing you are actually finally getting help is such a relief.

Talking treatments

Talking treatments provide a regular time and space for you to talk about your thoughts and experiences and explore difficult feelings with a trained professional. This could help you to:

  • deal with a specific problem
  • cope with upsetting memories or experiences
  • improve your relationships
  • develop more helpful ways of living day-to-day.

You may hear various terms used to describe talking treatments, including counselling, psychotherapy, therapy, talking therapy or psychological therapy. These terms are all used to describe the same general style of treatment.

There are lots of different kinds of therapy available in the UK and it's important to find a style and a therapist that you feel comfortable with.

(See our pages on talking treatments for more information, including how to access them.)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

If you're referred for therapy through the NHS, you're likely to be offered a type of talking treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is a relatively short-term treatment which aims to identify connections between your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and to help you develop practical skills to manage any negative patterns that may be causing you difficulties.

Evidence suggests that CBT can be an effective treatment for a range of mental health problems. However, although many people can benefit from CBT, not everyone finds it helpful. You might find that it just doesn't suit you, or doesn't meet your needs.

(See our pages on CBT for more information.)

Talking things through with a counsellor or therapist really helps me to see things more rationally and make connections between reality and inside my head.


The most common type of treatment available is psychiatric medication. These drugs don't cure mental health problems, but they can ease many symptoms. Which type of drug you are offered will depend on your diagnosis. For example:


These are mostly prescribed for people experiencing depression, though you might also be offered an antidepressant if you're experiencing anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating problems, or depression as part of another mental health problem.


These may be prescribed to reduce distressing symptoms of psychosis, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and sometimes severe anxiety.

They are sometimes also prescribed for people experiencing bipolar disorder as they can help control hypomania and mania.

Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers

These can help you sleep if you experience severe sleep problems, or calm you down if you experience severe anxiety (sometimes called anti-anxiety medication).

Mood stabilisers (including lithium)

These can help stabilise your mood if you experience extreme mood swings, for example if you have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They may also be prescribed for hypomania and mania and sometimes recurrent severe depression.

Many people find these drugs helpful, as they can lessen your symptoms and allow you to cope at work and at home. However, drugs can sometimes have unpleasant side effects that may make you feel worse rather than better. They can also be difficult to withdraw from, or cause you physical harm if taken in too high a dose.

Before you take any medication

Make sure you have all the information you need to feel confident about your decision. For guidance on what you might want to ask your doctor about any drug before you take it, including your right to refuse medication:

How treatment helped me to live with depression and anxiety

Mental illness is a part of who you are, but it doesn't define you. You are not your illness.

Antidepressants helped once I found the right ones.

Arts and creative therapies

Arts and creative therapies are a way of using the arts (music, painting, dance or drama) to express and understand yourself in a therapeutic environment, with a trained therapist. This can be especially helpful if you find it difficult to talk about your problems and how you are feeling.

(See our pages on arts and creative therapies for more information.)

Complementary and alternative therapies

Some people find complementary and alternative therapies helpful to manage stress and other common symptoms of mental health problems. These can include things like yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, herbal remedies and acupuncture.

The clinical evidence for these options is not as robust as it is for other treatments, but you may find they work for you.

(See our pages on complementary and alternative therapies for more information.)

This information was published in October 2017.

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References and bibliography available on request.

If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.

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